An Interview with Safety First Records

Once upon a time, the term ‘indie’ described a philosophy rather than a genre and an indie label meant a way of doing things, not an identifiable sound. Xanthi Barker meets the people behind Safety First Records, a passionate attempt to live up to the ideals that come with independence

The night before Guy Fawkes’, as 2011 drew to a close, a hundred or so people gathered in a scaffold-built amphitheatre in a converted warehouse in Hackney Wick for the launch of Safety First Records. The obscure location, the cold, damp night, the autumn leaves scattered across the stage, all added up to something unusual, eery, spiritual. And the musicians did not disappoint. For two hours the audience sat in silence as each act wove another strand into a beautifully composed tapestry of authentic musical expression.

Born of the need for artistic independence and a feeling of being musical misfits, Safety First provides a base for artists who by essence may go undetected by major labels. Three of Safety First form the core members of Klak Tik, a band whose debut album Must We Find a Winner, was released on Safety First in 2010, to critical acclaim. Subsequently, they have released the five-star second album, Copenhagen from singer-songwriter Jack Cheshire, Swedish duo Polly Tones’, second EP The Toast, and the debut album, Ethereo by Danish group, Hanuman 5.

Currently, Safety First are nearing the end of their three-month residency at The Gladstone Arms in Borough. The final concert will be on Sunday 1st April, with Klak Tik and Felix Holt.

Felix Holt

Felix Holt

When and why did you start Safety First Records?

John Beyer: Safety First Records was started in early 2010. Søren, Matt and myself were at the tail end of the process of creating Klak Tik’s debut album and were starting to think a little about how it was going to be released. The album was made as independently as possible. The idea of recording when we wished, with no constraints from others, was an absolute must to create the album that we did. The idea of spending time searching for a label and trashing out a contract seemed so contradictory to the recording process that we decided to do that ourselves as well. Using the knowledge we’d gleaned releasing records for previous musical venues, the core members of Klak Tik took our first step into the unknown world of business and created Safety First Records. All in all, this first release was a success and just about a bearable workload.

Things then progressed very organically. We’d come to realise London isn’t the answer to all a musician’s dreams, and could be, in fact, a slight hindrance. There is no real sense of community and musicians fight for survival rather than help each other out. So we decided to turn Safety First Records into a platform for our friends and kindred musical spirits to release their work and hopefully all benefit from any success.

So is there a common thread running through all the acts you have signed?

Matt Mitchinson: In essence, it is just music that we love to listen to. Through playing in Klak Tik, we get to see and play alongside a lot of great artists, but every now and then you chance upon someone whose music is so good that it takes you to that place you almost stopped believing existed, and satisfies, elevates, or wounds you in a way that only music can. So far that’s how the relationships have started.

On top of that I think all of our artists have something in common stylistically. This probably has a lot to do with personal taste, but it’s also to do with their music not necessarily fitting precisely into any established ‘scene’. It’s part of our aim to build up a community and make sure we don’t just slip through the genre cracks.

You said that the artists take you to a place you almost stopped believing existed – does this imply that you are disillusioned with many successful (or unsuccessful) bands and artists that are around today?

Matt: To be honest, yes, although I’m always loath to say so as it can come across a bit negative, or worse, superior. The musical and commercial structures these days mean that to be a successful artist, or to be supported or promoted to a given level, you have to represent a calculable and pretty much guaranteed return on investment, which is never a good environment for artistic evolution. This idea is mirrored in the film industry with the fourteenth remake of Spiderman 8 or what have you.

The internet and the advent of social media does go a long way to diluting the power of major labels. It’s a much-touted axiom that these days someone’s music can be heard by anyone, anywhere, regardless of their budget or connections, and this is for the most part true. But this has also led to a saturation, and to people’s dependency on computers as a primary method of listening to and discovering music (myself included). Consequently, people’s attention spans have shortened and the internet has become a breeding ground for gimmicks. This is at a cost to music that requires a bit more effort on behalf of the listener, but also offers proportionate rewards.

In relation to being taken to that special place by the Safety First artists, that comes from a love of their music, not a disappointment with everything else. Even with an absolute abundance of great music around, there’s still room for those rare moments when you find something particularly special.

Do you think it is harder for artists who don’t fit into a specific genre?

Matt: It just makes it harder to locate your audience really – for instance with Klak Tik, we’ve found we’re not folk enough for most folk circles, but are definitely not appropriate for a loud indie night. So satisfying gigs, and I guess also publicity, are harder to come by.

Your artists could be described as folk/alternative folk, how do you think they fit into the current folk landscape in London (or not at all…)?

Matt: As above, I think all the artists share our dilemma, hence why we’re trying to establish something ourselves. I’m not sure whether this is an accurate observation, or it’s just my awareness that has increased, but it seems that the number and range of ‘folk’ promoters and gigs has been increasing, especially around East London, where we’re based. But again because the musical spectrum for that term is so large, you’re never quite sure what it entails. Whatever you label it though, I think music of a quieter nature is getting more of a showing these days, which is something we’re very keen to be involved in.

Can you tell me a bit about the artists you’ve signed?

Matt: I think listening to their music will offer the best insight into that. I fear my descriptions wouldn’t do them justice. On a personal level though they’re all, strangely, really lovely people, which I suppose is pretty important for the way things work.

Maybe you can tell me about their Safety First releases instead?

Matt: Our first release after our initial Klak Tik album was Jack Cheshire’s sophomore full-length Copenhagen. It’s an absolutely fantastic album. One of our first experiences of Jack’s music was when he opened for us at our Must We Find A Winner album launch and I can still remember the frustration at being stuck in the green room warming up whilst hearing these gorgeous songs wafting through. We feel honoured that we could be involved in releasing those songs to a wider audience. He has another album in the works right now, a few songs of which we heard at the Safety First label launch night, so we’re very, very excited to hear that in it’s entirety.

We released Polly Tones’ EP The Toast in November last year, as part of the label launch night, but they also have their debut album in the pipeline. Viktor and Mal are currently going through the puzzling and oft-times painful process of mixing the album themselves but we have heard one of the mastered tracks already and it sounds fucking great so I’m sure they, and anyone who gets to hear the result, will be duly rewarded.

A couple of weeks ago was our first release for Hanuman 5. The album is called Ethereo. It keeps getting better and better every time I listen to it, and I liked it a lot the first time! It has been described as ‘weirdfolk’ and ‘freakfolk’, but whatever the style it’s a really, really great record (if more than mildly alarming at times, on first listen, which I won’t spoil by explaining why).

As for Felix, we just can’t wait to release some of his music, and I think we’d collectively give up our firstborns to do so. A Felix Holt record is something my stereo and ears are eagerly anticipating and it looks like we might be getting closer with some of the recordings he’s just made.

We also have the much anticipated (by us and our mums at least) second Klak Tik album coming out, before summer hopefully. So far we’ve got about five of the tracks back from Mark, the poor man in charge of mixing the album, and after a long period of slight disillusionment with the process it is extremely exciting to hear the nearly finished product. We have (almost) settled on an album title now, which, although it took eight months and a few too many counselling sessions to decide on, helps to make everything that bit more concrete.

Jack Cheshire

Jack Cheshire

How does the actuality of starting a record label compare to how you imagined it would be?

Søren Bonke: Starting a record label is the easiest thing in the world – particularly whilst enjoying a nice, cold pint (and not the first one) in the company of good friends. Later it gets a bit more involved. If there is one thing we are constantly having to re-learn, it is that stuff doesn’t tend to get itself done. We meet roughly once a week and set tons of tasks, most of which get completed the next morning, some of which become glowing symbols that procrastination can be shared between people.

Most things involved in running a record label seem fairly straight forward, though I think we benefit hugely from the previous business experience each of us brings to the table.

Previous business experience is unusual amongst musicians, no? What kind of experience do you mean?

Søren: Previous business experience among musicians is probably not as unusual as you would think. It is, however, probably not something most musicians would want to stick on their band bios – ‘Søren Bonke: guitarist, singer, dentist’.

We all still work our day-jobs, and nothing suggests that this will change any time soon. John works for a live music organiser/promoter, which has its benefits for the label, although not as many as you would imagine. John is, disappointingly, very careful not to give us any unfair ‘advantages’. I say – the first rule of nepotism: just don’t mention the word nepotism. His cotton-coated heart will be sucked dry by the industry in time, oh yes.

Matthew works for Cancer Research UK and his righteous heart pounds tirelessly for good causes, even if he sometimes has to nip off early to come play a gig. That makes me feel bad, come to think of it.

I work as a music composer for film, TV and advertising and also as a film title designer and animator. I have good experience with general design, web and video things, which is helpful for the label and the band.

Do you think it is unwise to believe you can make a living as a musician?

Søren: I think it is good to believe you can make a living as a musician. We all need to do it to an extent. Expecting to make a living as a musician would be an altogether more frustrating experience for the majority of people.

Most of us are not going to make a living off music, but we should all aim to do so. I mean, you can’t really put in the kind of effort that it takes to push a band forward without the powerful petrol of faith. A belief that the next album will be the one that changed everything is essential, perhaps even for the song writing in some cases.

Conversely it is important to be happy with the stage you are at, as well. Sometimes the dreams of the US tour bus cruising down the All-American Road, or European summer festivals with mountains of chorizo on the rider, can make the bus journey on a packed 149 down to London Bridge a little sour. Then it is important to remember to focus on the music. The music is what will make you happy, not those other things. It is too hot in Spain anyway. And America – don’t even get me started.

Given the current financial black-hole we are in, do you think it is a difficult time to start up a label?

Søren: Yes. Arguably it is a terrible time to start up a label. Unless, like us, you choose to largely ignore the financial aspects and focus on the musical ones. Then it is a wonderful time. There is endless good music yet to be created and heard by the world. We would like to help.

At the risk of causing a minor earthquake when all the business-heads cringe their feet at the same time, I will say that our ‘philosophy’ of just plunging in head first, seeing what happens, worrying about the finance later, is just right for us.

Spot the artists making business. If I was a mayoral candidate I would campaign against me. Probably quite successfully, as well. I know a story or two.

What difficulties do artists face with record deals from major labels?

John: When an artist releases through a major record label they have to work within a major label framework. These systems are still a little old fashioned and rely, in part, on lots of money being thrown at an artist to help boost their chance of success. Alas, this means sales figures necessary to break even (let alone make money) tend to be massive. With record sales declining by fifty percent in the last ten years, hitting this level of sales can prove difficult. So this leads to a scenario where bands are signed up, then swiftly dropped if they don’t sell enough, or if it looks like they won’t sell enough. This is especially frustrating when we are talking about 10,000 sales being viewed as a failure.

Did you have any dealings with major labels for Klak Tik before the birth of Safety First?

John: We’ve not even had as much as a sniff from a major label with Klak Tik. In a previous band we did have some interest and it was an extremely frustrating situation. A&R love a long courtship and have a wonderful way of not being committal in any form whatsoever. I think it’s because many are actually too afraid to take a risk and sign somebody, so what else can they do with their time? To be fair I’ve never been past that stage of the game, it could get easier… but I doubt it.

How good a measure of artistic merit do you think commercial success actually is?

John: I don’t. Nowadays, commercial success is a good measure of clever marketing and efficient project management. Madonna, for example, keeps having to reinvent herself to stay “current” and maintain success. In my opinion, there is no artistic merit in that, just a lot of focus groups.

If it was a good measure, then the recording industry as it stands would be redundant and we could just enjoy making music without the need for all this nonsense.

How do bigger labels view the artists and releases of smaller labels? Do you think it can be a stepping stone? Or a completely different route?

John: Once upon a time (the ’80s) I’m sure major labels didn’t care about smaller labels. They had mountains of cocaine and Phil Collins to occupy them. However, when some of the record buying public turned their back on them in favour of independent music, the big boys began to take note. Major labels then started buying up or starting smaller labels as subsidiaries to release music through, to give artists that independent smell and hopefully to ‘fool’ some of the disgruntled listeners back into purchasing (such as Sony did with Creation Records). They are now fully aware of the importance of smaller labels and still will swoop in and pinch a little act that starts making medium-sized waves.

How do you think a start-up label compares to more established independent labels in terms of attracting attention and bringing the music to a wider audience?

John: We all begin small and grow up. A label in its infancy cannot usually offer the same level of attention as a more established one. I suppose that the internet has helped level the playing field when it comes to distribution of music. An independent artist can get their music up on all the major online music retailers easily. To an extent though, it’s also just a numbers game. The more money you can afford to spend on a release, the more ground you can cover, simple as that.

How much say do you have in what the artists release?

Søren: None. That’s the idea, anyway. We have ideas. If an artist is signed to us it means that we are into their music and so will always be able to offer an opinion if asked. Generally, we like to think of our label as a music collective, rather than a label label.

Where does the music you release get sold?

Søren: Safety First releases are mainly marketed and targeted to the UK, and are available digitally in most countries, but with myself being Danish, we also have strong ties to Denmark, where Klak Tik are signed to a Danish label. Having just signed our first non-UK act, the Danish group Hanuman 5, these ties should strengthen in the future.

Can I buy Safety First releases in the shops?

Søren: We focus on digital distribution, generally, although it depends on the release. Less and less physical CD’s are flung over the counter these days. The vinyl industry, on the other hand, seems to be thriving.

What are the differences between here and Denmark in terms of musical prospects?

Søren: Being a musician in Denmark is probably not too different in terms of prospects from the UK. And this is saying a lot about Scandinavia, as London has previously been the absolute Mecca for musicians. Copenhagen has an unusually thriving music scene with more Danish bands doing well internationally than ever before. A fact, I believe, that can be largely attributed to a very healthy community of musicians, where it is more common to play in two, three or even four bands, than just the one. This causes the lines of genres to be warped and merged, broken and reconstituted, with incredible results. I am genuinely excited about the Scandinavian music scene and am almost sad to say that most of my favourite bands are not from London, but from Copenhagen.

To return to your question, I think it is also a little easier to live off your music in Scandinavia, as government subsidies, and a perhaps more general appreciation of the craft of music, means you get paid (quite well) for every gig you play, no matter how small. In London the small bands music scene is so backward. It seems the bands are almost expected to pay for playing at a venue. Or at least bring four hundred of their thirstiest friends. This is a problem which is compounded by lazy ‘gig promoters’ who just don’t really seem to care about music (or know anything about it), and will put together foul tasting cocktails of genres on the same nights and charge people way too much money for the pleasure.

How much has the download culture made it harder for musicians to make a living?

John: Making a living as a musician has always been notoriously tough and with downloads having an adverse effect on sales it now looks even tougher. However all is not lost as independent musicians seem to be constantly coming up with new ways to adapt in this changing climate.

The real damage is in the changing way we listen to music. The download culture has generally stopped us from listening to albums as a whole and hence has an effect on our musical attention span. Being given access to music instantaneously takes a lot of the magic away from the discovery of new artists and therefore has led to a perceived devaluation of recorded music.

Klak Tik

Klak Tik

From listening to the Safety First musicians, it seems they are all artists that require focused attention in order to get the most from listening. Is this something you guys look for?

John: I don’t think we look for this intentionally. It must just be to do with our music tastes. I’ve always been into slightly more progressive styles of music, which has definitely shaped the way I listen to songs. However it could also be a complete coincidence.

Do you think people should work harder when listening to music? Do you think they’re able to?

John: People should work harder finding music. I am honestly sick to death with the way we are spoon fed new music. I have a family member who only discovers new music through the X-Factor. It’s shocking. I don’t mean that we should all become music super-geeks, but that people should try to scratch the surface a bit. Dig deeper and take a chance. If you put a little effort into finding something, you’ll probably put some more effort into listening to it.

I don’t really think you can combat people’s snap judgements. Some will give an album a few listens whilst others won’t. I have had classic albums that I abandoned after the first spin and then picked up again a year later and loved (Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde for example – seriously).

Another thing I noticed at the launch night was that everyone was sat down, focused, listening. Is it harder for artists who require this kind of attention in a musical landscape that often entails alcohol and shouted conversations?

John: It’s really hard, especially if you are trying to win a new audience over. Sometimes the stars align and everybody shuts up to listen but most of the time it just doesn’t happen. You cannot blame audiences for it. When mob mentality (plus booze) kicks in, all our IQs get dragged down to the level where we feel an overwhelming desire to talk about the newest episode of The Apprentice at the least opportune moments.

With our Safety First Records launch night we tried to gear the whole evening towards considerate listening and it worked really well. Maybe more venues and promoters should aim to achieve this.

Do you think people are getting tired of the alcohol and shouted conversations? Do you think this focused attention is something people are craving?

John: They are craving it but as yet don’t know it. By the time they do, we’ll probably be into shouting again.

Malin from Polly Tones with Jack Cheshire

Malin from Polly Tones with Jack Cheshire

Do you organise Safety First shows?

Matt: Shows, plural, is a bit generous so far, but we put on the inaugural Safety First label night in November last year at The Yard in Hackney Wick. In spite of entailing a lot of hard work and some unexpected obstacles, it turned out to be a magical night. It was a lovely venue and, in front of a full house of 120 or so attentive and appreciative listeners, everyone played amazingly. It felt good to provide an opportunity for the music to be heard in an environment it’s worthy of, and hopefully we’ll be able to do more of the same in the future. Though I have to say, London doesn’t exactly make it easy for such occasions to be regularly viable, at least for a small label like ours.

We’ve also just completed the second of three monthly shows at The Gladstone Arms in Borough. Each night has been Klak Tik joined by one of the other London-based Safety First artists. In February it was Polly Tones, in March, Jack Cheshire. The last will be with Felix Holt on Sunday April 1st.

Rory, who runs the nights there, understands exactly how our music should be given and received in a live setting, so the pub has a truly lovely atmosphere. Everyone has really enjoyed the experience and it’s inspired us to continue this kind of set-up, so hopefully there’ll be more to come.

Do you have any future plans for Safety First?

Søren: No, not really. We are no masters of visualisation. To us the future is an ocean size play-pit of multi-coloured balls that we are splashing through. We don’t really set goals or expect anything particularly, but we get huge enjoyment from seeing our project grow noticeably all the time – slower than Google but faster than a tree.

What is the biggest safety hazard of being a musician and what is your advice to counteract this?

John: Late nights. I like to operate a one-night-on/one-night-off philosophy. Remember an hour’s sleep before midnight is worth two after.

Matt: Empathy and Gout. Adopting a less regal lifestyle can decrease the chances of gout, but with empathy, once the first symptoms are there, it is probably already too late.

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